Between the Altar and the Stars – Science fiction and fantasy writers discuss Catholic storytelling

Stephen Kotowych talks at the Pourhouse in Charlottetown on Jan. 19 about science fiction and faith. His talk was part of the Theology on Tap presentation series. Daniel Brown photo.

By Daniel Brown

Jan 20, 2017

Stephen Kotowych would wake up on Sunday mornings to prepare for church when he was a boy,

One morning he discovered that reruns of a TV show called Star Trek aired at 10 a.m.

“What is that?”

Tuning into the interstellar adventures of Captain Kirk and crew became routine for Kotowych. However, church started at 11 a.m., so he could only ever watch half the episode. He had to leave early as he was an altar boy.

When he was older, his aunt gave him an old, worn copy of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

It was the most grown-up book Kotowych had read to that point. When he mentioned it to his cousins, they asked if he had read the others in Tolkien’s series.

‘There are more like this?”

Today, Kotowych is the author of Seven Against Tomorrow, a collection of seven award-winning short stories in the science fiction genre.

Kotowych gave a presentation titled Between the Altar and the Stars at the Pourhouse in Charlottetown on Jan. 19. It was about the world of science fiction and Catholic storytelling, and his experience reading and writing both.

Kotowych is a practicing Catholic, but his stories aren’t written as faith allegories. They may be open to faith or the supernatural, but he focuses on writing characters with strong moral centres, he said.

“Even if it’s not a morality I share… that is something I find very attractive in fiction.”

One of his stories is about an athlete who becomes genetically enhanced because the competitor think it’s a fair way to win. Kotowych doesn’t agree, so writing the story was a way to process how someone would think that way.

“Hopefully, the reader will see in it a different perspective.”

A common theme in science fiction is grim, dystopian futures, but Kotowych’s stories have hopefulness to them. They weren’t written this way, or as a collection, he said.

“I think it was an unconscious motivation.”

Kotowych separated science fiction from fantasy by looking at the stories of Star Trek and Star Wars. The former relies on its scientific elements, and is based more on reality. The latter doesn’t require either.

“You could tell the same story in a fantasy world.”

There was another Catholic writer attending Kotowych’s presentation, with more experience in fantasy.

Denise Pierlot, who uses her maiden name Mallett when writing, is the author of The Tree, a Christian medieval fantasy novel. Faith is more allegorical in her writing, having constructed her own religion parallel to Christianity in the story.

When Pierlot was young, she loved creating stories. In Grade 3, she wrote a story that was 12 pages long.

When she was 13 she had a dream about a magical tree. She started coming up with a story about it.

At 17, she decided to write the story down.

However, Pierlot scrapped everything about the story except for the tree and came up with something new. She finished her novel when she was 19.

Now, Pierlot is finishing the sequel in the series, The Blood.

While writing, Pierlot asked her father if she should write about God. He said she didn’t have too, just so long as the characters and story are good, true, and beautiful.

“Because it all points to God,” Pierlot said.

Her story draws inspiration from her own struggles and triumphs in faith. It’s important to avoid the tropes of both faith and fantasy when combining the two in writing, she said.

“[The key is] not being cliché and corny, and writing something that will truly resonate in someone.”

As for faith and science fiction, Kotowych says the challenge is traditionally they’re not related. This requires knowledge of what readers are looking for, he said.

“Who’s reading this and what are they looking for in their reading experience?”

In order to include religion, the science fiction has to be well told. It has to overcome the biases on religion, Kotowych said.

“It needs to be an element but it needs to be honest.”

Kotowych’s next project is a fiction novel about the friendship between scientist Nikola Tesla and writer Mark Twain. While the two were friends, Kotowych imagines there may have been a secret, fantastical side to the story.